House Reps. press for help on food insecurity, SNAP benefits

College students still face hurdles in trying to get benefits, and those may become restrictive again once the pandemic emergency is over.
By: | June 7, 2021
Colleges and universities are fighting hunger on campus by opening food pantries, such as this one at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives have reached out to the  Government Accountability Office asking that it assess the impact of food insecurity among college students and the barriers that may exist under the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

In the letter to the GAO, Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Agriculture Committee Chair David Scott (D-Ga.) noted continuing concern over hunger among students that has been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – citing surveys that show as many as 40% of individuals at some campuses are not getting enough food.

Prior to the beginning of the national crisis, more than one million of the college students who were SNAP eligible did not reach out to attain benefits, according to the GAO’s own report in 2018. Many have struggled to understand the complexities of the program, are unaware of it or simply don’t qualify.

Congress eased some of the restrictions of SNAP through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act late last year, providing immediate access to benefits for those in work-study programs and those with expected family contributions of zero.

The two representatives are asking the GAO to look at further solutions – including extending those benefits for many who could become ineligible once the crisis lifts.

More from UB: Nine ways colleges and universities can help tackle food insecurity

“Given that the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics is likely to release new data on food insecurity among college students based on their 2020 National Post-Secondary Student Aid Study in early 2022 and that the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization in 2023, we feel the time is right to re-examine SNAP eligibility restrictions with respect to college students,” the Scotts wrote. “We ask GAO to examine the extent of college student food insecurity, enrollment in SNAP among eligible college students, and how college students were affected by the removal of certain eligibility restrictions to SNAP.”

Facing challenges

For college students, navigating SNAP can be daunting, especially for those from less-traditional situations (those living with families and then directly entering college for the first time). They must apply to specific states for consideration. For those whose hopes are high in finding information on the SNAP website, the answer to the first FAQ question “Am I eligible for SNAP?”, might be a deal breaker: “Generally, students attending an institution of higher education more than half-time are not eligible for SNAP unless they meet an exemption.”

There are several potential exemptions listed, including mental and physical disabilities, child care for kids under 6 and for those single parents enrolled full-time who have children under 12. One of the most challenging exemptions to get past for many students who are hungry but otherwise don’t qualify is the requirement of 20 hours of employment to receive benefits.

One bill that temporarily boosted the pool of those who are SNAP eligible was the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which required students be enrolled only half-time at institutions. Colleges and universities make those determinations. The Act also increased the maximum amounts of benefits under SNAP to 115%, but that only lasts through the end of June. Other maximum allotments were extended through the end of September via the American Rescue Plan Act.

Recognizing the gravity of the food insecurity problem, many legislators over the past two years have tried to introduce bills to help. The most recent is the Student Food Security Act of 2021 proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others that hopes to make the Consolidated Appropriations Act guidelines permanent and provide further benefits for students, including:

  • “Increasing low-income student eligibility to include those who are in: federal or state work study programs, have an EFC of zero, can get maximum Pell Grant, or are a students whose households might not qualify but they would because they live independently.
  • Requiring the Department of Education to both reach out to students about potential eligibility when they file for financial aid and track data on food and housing insecurity.
  • Launching SNAP programs at 10 colleges and universities that gives students the opportunity to use benefits for campus dining.
  • Providing $1 billion in grants to colleges and universities to utilize toward food and housing insecurity, with a third allocated toward community colleges, those that serve a high number of Pell-eligible students, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.”

Another bill called the Enhance Access to SNAP Act from California Rep. Jimmy Gomez would simply get rid of the precondition that students work to attain benefits. As long they meet other SNAP rules, they would be eligible.